The remarkable story of Riley Hospital pediatrician who will sing anthem at NCAA finals

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INDIANAPOLIS — He stood in the newborn intensive care unit, his hands in that incubator for three hours. The baby was so tiny, measured in grams, not pounds. And the IV was so big, constantly coming out. 

Dr. Eric A. Yancy was having trouble and he was all alone. He asked fellow residents to help. He asked for advice from nurses. Yancy was ignored, even laughed at, he said.

Yet, Yancy stayed there diligently with his big hands on that tiny body for three hours — and he wept.

“Knowing the three hours I spent trying to start the IV meant less time for my other patients, I stood with my hands in the isolette and cried.”

Yancy wrote of that summer of 1976 as a resident at Riley Hospital for Children in a thank you letter to Dr. Richard Schreiner, who worked in the unit with Yancy during his residency.

Yancy, the first Black resident in the hospital’s neonatal ICU, was a trailblazer and a pioneer — and it wasn’t always easy.

Schreiner remembers a night when Yancy was asked to make an emergency delivery across campus from Riley to University Hospital. Yancy was on foot, running when campus police spotted him. They didn’t believe he was a resident doctor and took him into their headquarters. It was only after a call from the police to the hospital’s chief Dr. Morris Green that Yancy was released.

No one can know what it is like to feel the coolness of walking into the room and having a parent give you that ‘This is who they sent?’ look. No one can know the silent torture of…having parents refuse to let you care for their children.

Yancy never let the treatment affect his professionalism and his mission of taking care of sick children. He never turned cruel toward anyone else. And he never changed his mission of becoming a doctor who would help poor children get the treatment they deserved.

“He always resisted the temptation, if there ever even was a temptation, to move to the suburbs where patients had the ability to always pay,” said Schreiner, who was Riley’s physician-in-chief for 22 years. “He remained in the inner city all these years. That’s his love.”

Yancy, a private-practice pediatrician who also works for Riley Children’s Health, has remained dedicated to those patients, most of whom are on Medicaid or don’t have health insurance.

His office has always been downtown so kids without access to transportation can get care from him.

Yancy said he loves educating parents. He loves, after 41 years, taking care of the children of former children he treated. He still learns all the cartoon characters and names of songs kids sing so he can chat with kids about that. Yancy is larger than life, kind-hearted, a beloved figure in these families’ lives.

And not too long ago, one of the parents of a patient Yancy treated had an idea.

Two worlds collide

Yancy has been a singer for as long as he can remember, growing up in segregated Baton Rouge in the 1950s. He performed his first solo at 5. His teacher lined up his class to try out for a Christmas program and had each of them sing a part from “Silent Night.”

After Yancy sang his verse, the teacher turned around in awe. “Do that again.” Yancy did and he got the solo.

Yancy sang all through high school, a baritone and as an adult continued to sing in church. He has played Pontius Pilate for 37 years in community theater. He released his first album in 2009.

His patients know he’s the singing doctor, but he didn’t know they thought so highly of his talent. Until he got the call from the NCAA.

“I got the call and they first said ‘Somebody put your name in to sing The Star-Spangled Banner,'” Yancy said. “I said, ‘This is a joke. Which one of my friends is this?'”

Then the conversation continued. They had seen some of Yancy’s performances on YouTube and wanted him to be a part of a small ensemble of medical workers to sing the national anthem at the championship game Monday night.

He soon learned this was for real and then he learned his two worlds — doctor and singing — had collided in a big way.

Yancy found out Friday it was a father of one of the children he took care of who nominated Yancy for the gig.

Practice with the ensemble began Saturday afternoon. Yancy has been practicing on his own, too. In the car or shower — whenever he’s alone.

It’s not the first time he’s been on the big stage. A few years back he sang the national anthem at a packed Pacers game, the team playing Chicago.

“But so far looking at the national audience? Yes this will be the biggest one,” Yancy said. “Not just who will be in the arena, but who will be watching.”

It’s all a bit surreal, Yancy said, but so have been many things in his life.

‘Be a doctor then’

Yancy was a young boy, 8 or 9, when he decided he would be a doctor. In many parts of  Louisiana, Black people were treated unequally in the 1950s. Yancy remembers not being able to go to movie theaters reserved for whites and the Black theater being rundown and filled with rats.

He also remembers only a few Black doctors anywhere in the state for children such as him to see. And he remembers one day he was sitting in his doctor’s office, the only Black pediatrician anywhere near Yancy’s home, when a young woman with a baby walked in.

Because of the medically underserved area for Black children, patients would wait hours to see the doctor only to be turned away because there just wasn’t enough time. That day, the woman and her sick baby were sent home.

Yancy was in the waiting room with his dad, and started crying.

“My dad said, “Well, if you feel that way, OK, then when you grow up you can be a doctor and you can take care of children,” Yancy said when he was given Creighton University’s Alumni Merit Award in 2011. “And I said, ‘OK I will.'”

Throughout high school, his friends called him “doc.” Yancy let anyone who would listen know that he would be going to medical school. While at Southern University, Yancy walked by a room and saw a man sitting alone. 

The man told Yancy he was there recruiting for Creighton’s medical school but his 9 a.m. appointment hadn’t shown up. Yancy told the man he wanted to be a doctor, and asked to have the interview slot. That interview turned into an acceptance letter.

After finishing medical school at Creighton, Yancy landed the residency at Riley. He had no plans to stay in Indianapolis after he finished but, Yancy said, he fell in love with the city.

And now his work and dedication to the city’s children will be in the spotlight as Indianapolis showcases the final game of the NCAA tournament.

Yancy said he is honored to be among the group chosen to sing. But even more touching is the honor that it was a patient’s father who made the call.

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: [email protected].